Twenty-eight months after the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria against police brutality, civil society organizations and movements around the world are still drawing important lessons for supporting activism and peaceful assemblies on digital spaces. Spaces for Change|S4C shared some of these lessons at a recent webinar hosted by the European Centre for Non-profit Law (ECNL) in partnership with the United Nations Special Procedures. With a primary focus on the intersections between new technologies and the right to peaceful assembly, the discussions explored how technology can enhance citizens’ right to dissent, especially on the web. Participants included representatives of social movements, national and international organizations, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the Council of Europe.
The #EndSARS protest is considered one of the largest digitally-mediated social movements in Nigeria since the country’s return to democracy in 1999. During the protests, young Nigerians thronged the streets demonstrating against decades of police brutality, unlawful detentions, torture, extortion, and extra-judicial killing by the police and other security agencies in Nigeria, particularly, the now-disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The Nigerian government disbanded SARS in response to the protesters’ demands that the unit be dissolved and erring officers brought to justice.
Social media played a very significant role in mobilizing youth participation in the nationwide protests. First off, social media was used to document gruesome incidents of police brutality, presenting visual and pictorial evidence that ignited public anger, culminating in street protests. Protest days and venues were also announced and circulated widely on a variety of social media platforms. New payment technologies like cryptocurrencies, e-wallets, and e-currencies were used to mobilize resources and coordinate logistics. Livestreaming the activities happening at the protest grounds on social media also helped to build solidarity and give real-time situational reports in different parts of the country. The full account of how technology enabled the youth-led resistance against the repressive conduct of security agents is documented in the Action Group joint-action research report, #EndSARS: Police Brutality, Protests and Shrinking Civic Space in Nigeria.
Calls for the regulation of social media mounted in the wake of the protests, followed by the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria. Protesters were slammed with travel bans and criminal charges of terrorist financing while cryptocurrency was also banned. The use of excessive force to disperse protesters combined with the crackdown on the protesters and the organizers reveals serious limitations on the right to free assembly. In light of these, S4C advocated for the strengthening of digital assemblies by “putting restrictions on the supply chain of intrusive technologies, intensifying partnerships with national CSOs and measuring national legislation against international mechanisms and holding actors that do not comply with these mechanisms accountable.”